I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
Series: The Books of Babel #1
Published by Orbit on January 16 2018
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Format: Finished paperback
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The nitty-gritty: A surprisingly well-written, well crafted and thrilling adventure.
I still recall a line from that feckless Everyman’s Guide. It said something like, “the Tower’s real trade is in whimsy, adventure, and romance.” I cannot image a less accurate trio. Though, who in their right minds would’ve come if the editors had said, “the Tower’s true trade is in tyranny, dismemberment, and heartbreak”?
– Every Man’s Tower, One Man’s Travails by T. Senlin
As you probably know by now, Senlin Ascends began life as a self-published book and gained attention during Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. Since then, the book was picked up by Orbit Books, which is how I ended up with a copy in my hands. It’s always exciting to hear news of self published books catching the attention of traditional publishing houses, and I was eager to read the book that everyone was talking about.
So, something strange happened as I was reading Senlin Ascends. About halfway through this book—and to be honest it took me two weeks to get that far—I was planning on giving this three stars. It wasn’t engaging, I was bored to tears, it was beyond silly, and I just couldn’t bring myself to pick it up, let alone finish it. But then I got to the midway point and everything changed. The character of Senlin, whom I had no feelings for whatsoever, suddenly became engaging, and I wanted nothing more that to finish the story as fast as I could. It’s an odd sensation to go from forcing yourself to read a book to discovering it’s actually pretty damn good, to be absolutely certain that I wouldn’t touch the sequel, to wondering how soon I could get a copy of it. Many reviewers have praised this book up and down, and honestly, I could NOT figure out why. But having made it to the end, I can now say I’m a fan.
The set-up is fantastic: Thomas Senlin is an unassuming, uptight and proper headmaster who has just married a feisty, independent woman named Marya. Senlin is obsessed with a marvelous structure called the Tower of Babel, and not only has he been studying it for his own enjoyment for years, but he has been lecturing his students on the engineering marvels of the Tower as well. His greatest wish is to visit the Tower, and so for their honeymoon, Senlin has planned the trip of a lifetime: a visit to the Tower of Babel where their ultimate goal will be to visit the Baths, one of the “ringdoms” in the huge structure.
Upon arriving after a long journey, Senlin and Marya are surprised by the dusty and crowded throngs milling about the base of the Tower, and it doesn’t take long before the two become separated. Senlin panics but then remembers that they made a back-up plan for just such an occurrence: they agreed to meet in the Baths if they lost each other. Senlin sets out to make his way up the ringdoms to the meeting location, but getting there proves much more difficult than he expected. With various shady characters blocking his way, Senlin despairs of ever finding Marya.
As much as I enjoyed Senlin Ascends, this book isn’t perfect, and I had issues with the length and the pacing. The first half is very slow, as Bancroft takes his time building his world and introducing us to the characters. The author is a fan of descriptive narrative, which I believe works best in small doses. There were pages and pages of nothing but description of the sights, sounds and tastes of the Tower and the surrounding areas, which is one reason I found the beginning so slow. I also couldn’t find much to like about Senlin himself, nor the people he meets and interacts with. He’s a stuffy sort of man who, despite his desire to explore the Tower, finds that he’s uncomfortable away from the comforts of his home and his teaching position, and once the Tower’s true aspects start to reveal themselves, Senlin is saddened and discouraged.
However, if you are looking for a perfect example of character growth, then look no further. The Senlin in the second half of the book is barely recognizable as the same man we meet at the beginning of the story. It almost felt as if I were reading a different book. I won’t give the plot away, but let’s just say that Senlin runs into all kinds of trouble, including theft, scrapes with death, and worst of all, the fact that the Tower is not at all the marvel he thought it was. Senlin finds himself trapped in more ways than one. Not only is he having a devil of a time finding Marya, but he can’t seem to leave the Tower. All these experiences are great for character building, and I was thrilled when I realized I now liked Senlin and was rooting for him to succeed.
A few other fantastic characters didn’t hurt either. My absolute favorite is a woman named Edith, who Senlin shares a harrowing experience with in the Parlor. He and Edith are separated, but they run into each other again late in the story, and Edith is key in helping Senlin achieve his goals. Edith also changes quite a bit from the first time we meet her. Having gone through her own hellish experience and emerged on the other side more or less intact, she is now in a position of authority and is able to join forces with Senlin. None of the relationships in this story are easy or straightforward. Senlin gathers allies as he moves through the Tower, among them a fierce fighter named Iren who can’t read, and a desperate man named Adam whose young sister is being forced to either entertain on stage or become a prostitute. But these “friends” betray Senlin and it’s not easy to figure out which side they are on. I loved that Bancroft forces his characters into tough situations and doesn’t give anyone an easy resolution.
Oddly, the focus of the story—Senlin’s attempt to locate his wife—becomes less important as things progress. In fact, the elusive Marya is merely a shadow or an afterthought in Senlin Ascends. The only glimpses we have of her are through the eyes of the other characters, as Bancroft doesn’t give her a voice after the first few pages of the book. And I was OK with this. Marya may turn out to be a fascinating and lively character in the next book, but for now I’m content with the characters I did meet in these pages.
The ending was thrilling and did not go exactly the way I played things out in my head. As a reader who was not sure I would even finish this book, I’m so happy that I pushed through. If you’re one of those on the fence, I am thrilled to say I can recommend this without hesitation.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.